Gunman seen at school slips away undetected

September 25, 1992|By Mark Bomster and Michael James | Mark Bomster and Michael James,Staff Writers

Reports of an intruder armed with a long-barreled gun forced officials to evacuate about 1,000 students from Hampstead Hill Middle School in East Baltimore yesterday.

No gunshots or injuries were reported and it is unclear why the man -- who apparently escaped during the evacuation -- was wandering around the building.

"He didn't point [the weapon] at anybody, and he didn't apparently threaten anyone," said Kevin Harahan, principal of Hampstead Hill. At one point, a school police officer chased the man down a hallway but lost him.

Students were dismissed nearly an hour early while a police quick-response team in full tactical uniforms climbed a fire escape to the roof, then did a floor-by-floor search of the five-story building at 101 S. Ellwood Ave.

L The officers also combed a basement and a subbasement level.

Police finished the search at 7:30 p.m., with no indications as to what became of the mystery gunman, said Agent Doug Price, a city police spokesman.

"We had three independent sources who said they had seen him," Agent Price said. Among those who spotted the man were a student, a cafeteria worker and a school police officer, he said.

A PTA meeting scheduled to be held at the school last night also had to be canceled since the school was still being searched by tactical officers.

The incident began at 1:15 p.m., when Mr. Harahan and a school police officer were approached by a student who said he had seen a man with a weapon, possibly a rifle, standing in the LTC fifth-floor cafeteria.

The officer went to investigate and, in a third-floor hallway, spotted a man wearing a long blue coat. The man appeared to be toting a long-barreled weapon, Mr. Harahan said.

But after a brief chase in the hall and down a stairway, the officer lost the man, Mr. Harahan said.

Minutes later, a cafeteria worker reported seeing a man wearing a blue coat in an unspecified area of the building, although the worker did not see a weapon, Mr. Harahan said.

At that point, the principal activated the school's emergency drill.

"I told the teachers to keep the children in the classroom -- I didn't want to panic them," he said.

Classes continued while police searched the building. Officials then decided to clear the building floor by floor, calling it a fire drill, but having students and teachers leave only from the school's main entrance.

Not long after 3 p.m., most students had cleared out of nearby Patterson Park, where they had been taken after the evacuation, and headed home.

Some students said they were frightened once they discovered why they had been evacuated.

Tamika Martin recalled thinking two things: "'We're going to get killed, and I want my Mommy!' "

Others complained about a proliferation of guns in the neighborhood, and some said that the school is too casual about policing doorways through which intruders can enter the building.

"Other students open the door for people who want to go in," said Yalanda Austin, a seventh-grader.

Added sixth-grader Andre Almond: "I think they should lock the doors from inside."

School officials worried that the incident would further tarnish the reputation of Hampstead Hill, which has been the scene of a number of disruptive incidents in the past year.

"You work to change an image, change the reputation of the school -- and yet the school's going to get a bad rap because it's 'Hampstead Hill,' " said Mr. Harahan. "It has nothing to do with the school."

Like other schools, Hampstead Hill has only one entrance available during school hours, said school Superintendent Walter Amprey, who was on the scene as the evacuation was taking place.

But he added that intruders sometimes are let into schools by people inside or gain access through doors that are propped open temporarily for students and staff.

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